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Solar panels and heat pumps in houses, shops and offices: this is how Brussels wants to free itself from Russian energy | Economy

The European Commission is aware of the material impossibility of completely unhooking itself from Russian natural gas in the short term: a year or a year and a half ahead. To make it possible over a longer horizon —two or three years—, however, its plan is to secure as many new supply contracts from friendly countries that until now do not have a great relevance in its import matrix until the start-up of a battery of measures aimed at reducing consumption as much as possible (efficiency and energy saving) and generating its own clean energy (renewable).

“The EU energy system will undergo a structural transformation”, outline the technicians of the European Commission in the so-called REpowerEU, the program of initiatives aimed at drastically reducing its energy dependence on Moscow. “No Member State can meet this challenge alone: ​​by jointly carrying out needs assessment and planning, joint purchasing and increasing coordination, we will ensure that phasing out our dependence on Russian fossil fuels is feasible and affordable for all member states”, he adds, appealing to unity at a time when Russia has already begun to decree the first gas cuts to countries of the bloc. Poland, Bulgaria and Finland have been its first victims, but few doubt that there will be more.

Not a roof without plates

For the first time since the heyday of coal, the EU has the possibility of having its own sources of energy supply: the sun and the wind. A golden opportunity, both economically and geopolitically and environmentally, that cannot be missed. Self-consumption is called to play a key role: it could cover, according to the calculations of the Community Executive, up to 25% of the total electricity consumption in the Member States, a larger fraction than what is obtained today by burning natural gas. “Immediate action is needed,” he claims.

A verbal statement that also crystallizes in facts: all newly built buildings will have the legal obligation to have solar panels. There will, however, be gradations: public and commercial buildings of more than 250 square meters will have to have a photovoltaic installation, at the latest, in 2026, while residential ones will have a little more margin: until 2029. In the case of public and commercial buildings already built, that period will end in 2027. In all cases, installation permits may not take more than three months.

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Self-consumption, however, must be accompanied by a boost to large-scale installations. Between now and 2030, the Twenty-seven must add 45 gigawatts (GW) of photovoltaic power each year. To put this figure in its proper dimension, it can be said that at the end of 2020 the EU as a whole had 136 GW installed (which only provided 5% of the electricity consumed) and the annual rate of installation did not exceed 18 G.W. To meet the objectives, as the Commission’s own technicians acknowledge, a powerful acceleration will be needed in the next five years. Above all, in the central and southern countries, where the generation potential is infinitely greater.

Brussels is also focusing on large-scale installations, which have grown strongly in the Mediterranean countries but still have a lot of room for development in the bloc as a whole. “The large-scale deployment of photovoltaics will reduce our dependence on natural gas to generate electricity”, underlines the Community Executive. “Solar energy, whether in the form of electricity, heat or hydrogen, can replace gas consumption for industrial processes. And, combined with heat pumps, it can replace it to heat water or heat residential or commercial areas”.

Goodbye to gas at home, hello to heat pumps

Natural gas boilers are one step away from being a thing of the past. If the transition from coal to gas was a matter of several years —or decades, in some cases—, the change will now be much faster. Brussels calculates that, in just five years, 10 million units will be installed throughout the EU. If this goal is met, the community objectives in force until now would be doubled. These facilities, powered by electricity —therefore compatible with self-consumption panels— and much more efficient than they were a few years ago, are called to play a key role in leaving behind dependence on fossil fuels. Today, natural gas is the first source of energy in European homes.

The Community Executive is aware that private initiative, guided by savings and a growing ecological awareness, is an essential but not sufficient requirement. Hence, it asks the governments of the bloc for “support measures”, such as a cut in VAT to encourage the move towards more efficient facilities, always giving priority to the most vulnerable households. On an industrial scale, Brussels sees the need for a “rapid increase in production” of this equipment within the Union, to reduce dependence on Asia, a continent from which “an increase in imports has been experienced in recent years ”.

Fast track for renewable projects

Brussels understands that one of the biggest bottlenecks in the transition to renewable energies is in the administrative authorization process for projects, which includes everything from environmental impact assessments to construction licenses and connection to the grid. The Commission calculates that it takes nine years on average to get wind farms off the ground and five for solar farms. “It is a time that we do not have,” say sources from the Community Executive.

The REPowerEU bundle proposes to drastically reduce the times, which would be one year for new projects and six months for extensions or improvements to existing ones. To this end, the Commission is launching a proposal for a regulatory amendment that will oblige Member States to identify specific areas specially adapted for the installation of renewable plants. A strategic and global environmental impact assessment would be carried out, which would not need to be repeated every time a new project was to be approved.

Hydrogen, an essential complement for electrification

A good part of the European commitment to a future of climate neutrality to which it aspires for 2050 was already going through green hydrogen. But, as in the rest of the cases, the clash with Russia has further accelerated the transition towards this energy vector, considered the “backbone” of the community’s ecological transition. “It will be key to replacing natural gas, coal and oil in industries and transport that are difficult to decarbonize,” says the communication published last week.

The Commission proposes to double – from 10 to 20 million tonnes – the hydrogen targets before 2030, half produced in the EU and the other half imported, and intends to finalize the evaluation of the first important projects of common European interest on hydrogen before summer. The idea is that the large flows of this green gas run, above all, through the corridors of the Mediterranean and the North Sea towards the industrial poles of the center.

In the first of these channels, Spain wants to play a relevant role, both with its own production and as a transit station from North Africa, one of the areas with the greatest future potential on a global scale. To do this, it needs to increase its limited connections with the rest of the EU, either through France or Italy, two projects that the Commission sees as “possible”.

The North Sea corridor is another of Brussels’ bets: on the same day as the presentation of the great European plan for the disconnection of Russian gas, the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, met on the Danish coast with the heads of government of Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium, to promote an offshore wind and renewable hydrogen projectwith the goal of generating 65 GW by 2030.

In search of indigenous gas: acceleration in biomethane

In the midst of a global energy struggle, Europe wants to make the most of its internal resources. And there, biomethane —gas from organic waste, such as garbage, sewage, agricultural and forestry waste or manure— is called to play an essential role. If until just a few months ago its cost was notably higher than that of imported natural gas, after the explosion of prices in international markets it has become competitive. “It is a profitable way to achieve our ambition of reducing gas imports from Russia”, outlines the Community Executive.

The community roadmap involves doubling the current production targets to 35,000 million cubic meters, which would make it possible to cover a quarter of the gas consumed today in the EU. The investment required to achieve this goal will be around 37,000 million euros between now and 2030. “Biomethane can be used for industrial uses, electricity generation and heating, directly replacing natural gas,” reads the community text.

And how is all this paid for?

Brussels wants member states to include the accelerated disconnection of Russian energy in their recovery plans, the multimillion-dollar European funds designed to alleviate the effects of the pandemic. The proposal, which requires a legislative amendment, would mobilize some 72,000 million in subsidies and another 225,000 million in loans still available from those resources. Once the regulatory change is approved, member states should indicate their intention to request the loans within 30 days.

The capitals may include all kinds of measures in the new REPowerEU chapters: from the improvement of infrastructures to guarantee energy security (a key point for countries like Hungary, which has vetoed the embargo on Russian oil for this reason) to plans that improve interconnections (of maximum interest for Spain).

The proposal indicates that we are entering wartime, where the old environmental principles are tottering: Brussels intends to repeal in a limited way the so-called principle of not causing significant harm, enshrined in recovery plans to avoid damaging the environment. In addition, one of the financing formulas has aroused criticism from environmental groups: the Commission wants to obtain some 20,000 million euros through the auction of additional CO2 emission rights that are currently in the stability reserve, a mechanism created precisely to remove excess duties from the market. Although the Community Executive defends that these additional rights would be “reabsorbed” in the coming years, critics believe that the measure would lower the price of CO2, limiting its deterrent effect.

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